This disc opens with three tracks from the Modern Lovers' self-titled LP, originally recorded in 1972 but not released until '76. Produced by ex-Velvet John Cale, the influence of the Velvet Underground is all over these tracks, in the gritty garage-rock sound of the band (including future members of the Cars and the Talking Heads!) and in Jonathan's wildly off-key vocals. The lyrics, however, are Richman's own -- simple, honest expressions of adolescent joy ("Roadrunner"), lust ("Astral Plane"), and snotty attitude ("Pablo Picasso").
A sharp turn takes place on track four, a version of "Government Center" that Jonathan did in 1974 after he disbanded the Modern Lovers; Richman's voice was more tuneful, his lyrics more whimsical, the instrumentation more stripped-down and acoustic (influenced by '50s and early '60s rock 'n' roll). This became Jonathan's blueprint for creating rock music, not only for the mid-to-late '70s in the face of a growing punk scene (which the Modern Lovers had helped influence!!), but for his whole career after that as well. On the four albums he recorded for Beserkely between 1976 and '79 (with an evolving lineup of backup musicians, also dubbed the Modern Lovers), Richman -- having lived out his alienated, lonely adolescence on The Modern Lovers LP -- regressed into a sort of second childhood with songs about regional pride ("New England"), Martians, abominable snowmen, the ice cream man, cars that don't run ("Dodge Veg-O-Matic"), and dinosaurs, among other things. Songs like these continue to puzzle (and put off) rock critics and Modern Lovers fans, but they also show that Jonathan can write songs about pretty much anything. (He would later write about such things as chewing gum wrappers, Harpo Marx, vampire girls, and thrift stores).
At the same time, though, he was showing a more mature and thoughtful side, waxing poetic on "Lonely Financial Zone," expressing devotion to his woman on "Back in Your Life," and giving his woman encouragement and respect on "Morning of our Lives" and "My Love is a Flower Just Beginning to Bloom." Best of all is the closing track, "Affection" (from 1979's Back in Your Life), one of Richman's most emotional performances ever caught on record; his voice wavers and breaks quite a bit as he explains how he beat his adolescent loneliness by finally reaching out to other people.
While not as consistent as the 2002 Rounder compilation Action Packed, The Beserkely Years (Rhino, 1986) represents the twisted, fascinating history and evolution of an unusual and grossly underrated songwriter. Warning: Jonathan Richman's unabashed honesty and unself-conscious weirdness may not be for all tastes; I recommend this mainly to those who have heard his more recent stuff (in concert, in There's Something About Mary, on one of his Rounder or Vapor albums, etc.) and are curious about his history.